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Tensions rise as PM rejects demands to dissolve parliament

Two soldiers were wounded in a grenade attack at an army base on Monday, raising tensions as tens of thousands "Red Shirt" protesters mass in Bangkok, to protest Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's rejection of demands for snap elections.

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AFP - Thailand's prime minister rejected on Monday an ultimatum by tens of thousands of protesters who demanded immediate elections as they besieged a military base where his government was holed up.

The "Red Shirts", loyal to deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, massed in front of a barracks on the northern outskirts of Bangkok where top ministers and military brass had taken refuge amid fears of violence by saboteurs.

After Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rejected their demands and left the base by helicopter, tensions increased when four grenades hit a separate barracks across the city, prompting heightened security measures.

It was not immediately clear if the protesters were linked to the explosions, which wounded one soldier in the arm and the other in the stomach, army spokesman Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said.

"Initially we suspect that the grenades were fired from a car," said Sunsern. A senior police official said a male suspect had been arrested and his car confiscated, but the man denied any involvement in the attacks.

Earlier Abhisit, who heads a fragile six-party coalition, made a nationally televised address to reject the red-clad crowd's demand, saying: "The coalition parties agree the demand cannot be met."

"Elections must be held under common rules and genuine calm. We have to listen to other people's voices, not just the protesters."

The Red Shirts rail against the perceived elitism of the government and say it is undemocratic, as it came to power via a December 2008 parliamentary vote that followed a controversial court ruling ousting Thaksin's allies.

The protesters, who come largely from the poor rural north, support ex-premier Thaksin for his populist policies. He was deposed in a 2006 coup and lives abroad to avoid a jail term for corruption.

Last month Thailand's top court confiscated 1.4 billion dollars of the telecoms tycoon's wealth. He made an impassioned plea to supporters by video link on Sunday, urging them to fight on.

Thaksin left his main base in Dubai on Saturday and was spotted over the weekend in Montenegro enjoying coffee and cakes in a luxury hotel with his entourage.

At least 86,000 Red Shirts have congregated since Saturday at a site near government offices. Soldiers and riot police have been deployed under a strict security law allowing authorities to ban gatherings and impose curfews.

Authorities said a 50,000-strong security force was on hand across Bangkok and surrounding provinces.

The rally moved on Monday to the army barracks, where Sunsern said about 2,000 soldiers were providing security with three helicopters on standby, before the Reds returned to their original site in the city's historic quarter.

In a bizarre development, protest leader Nattawut Saikur said the Red Shirts would each let a small amount of blood on Tuesday and spill it at the gates of Government House in a show of their fierce determination.

Since the 2006 coup Thailand has been wracked by protests by the Red Shirts and their rival Yellow Shirts, whose campaign in 2008 led to a crippling nine-day blockade of the country's airports.

Twice-elected Thaksin is loathed by the yellow movement, which is supported by Bangkok's establishment and accuses him of corruption and disloyalty to the revered royal family.

The current rally is the largest in Bangkok since the Reds rioted in April last year, leaving two people dead and scores injured.

Some Bangkok banks and schools were closed as the protest picked up pace over the weekend and Thailand's tourism authority said 37 countries had issued warnings on travel to Bangkok.

US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell cancelled a planned visit on Tuesday to Thailand, with an embassy official saying it was "too much of a burden to put on our Thai counterparts".

The pro-Thaksin forces had dubbed their rally a "million man march" but police estimated their numbers at only 86,000. Protest leaders gave various figures, all wildly higher than 100,000.

Despite lower-than-expected numbers, the Red Shirts remain a potent electoral force in the run-up to polls due by December 2011.

 

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